I feel like I’ve been screwed over twice. First by the publisher, for advertising this as a spy story, and then by the author, for the way he wrote this entire fucking book. Seriously, want to know what Ian McEwan thinks of you, his reader? Especially if you happen to be a lady reader? Read Sweet Tooth right to the fucking end and find out.
Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume,” as she tells us) is the smart, beautiful daughter of an Anglican bishop. Raised in a loving family, she has been spared from the greater excesses of the sixties. When it is time for Serena to go to college, her mother pressures her to study mathematics at Cambridge, saying it is her “duty as a woman.” Although Serena would rather study English, she complies with her mother’s wishes, only to find that she is not as brilliant at math as everyone thought.
Serena takes her mind off her shortcomings by going back to her first love: books. She is a delightfully unsnobbish reader, insisting to her friends that Valley of the Dolls is as good as anything by Jane Austen and reading Octopussy and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the same sitting. She doesn’t care for the “tricks” of postmodernist literature, though. All she wants, Serena explains, are “characters I could believe in . . . Generally, I preferred people falling in and out of love . . . It was vulgar to want it, but I liked someone to say ‘Marry me’ by the end.” Poor, sweet Serena, all your preferences are going to be royally pissed on by the time your story is over.
The works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn transform Serena into a vehement anti-Communist, a rarity in the university world of the 1970’s. A series of articles she writes for a student magazine catches the eye of middle-aged Tony Canning, a history tutor and former MI5 operative. They have an affair and he begins grooming her for recruitment into MI5. Even after he brusquely ends things between them, Serena continues on the path set out for her and is hired as a “junior assistant officer,” i.e. glorified secretary. Geez, that pesky glass ceiling.
However, thanks to her reputation as a reader, Serena is offered a role in a program codenamed “Sweet Tooth.” MI5 has been secretly funding up-and-coming writers whose work have an anti-Communist slant, and now they want to add a novelist to the list. Serena’s job is to visit Tom Haley (McEwan’s doppelgänger) and offer him a stipend from a front organization. (That’s it. That’s her entire mission. George Smiley this girl ain’t.) Serena is entranced by Tom’s short stories and all too ready to fall in love with their author. As her relationship with Tom grows more and more serious, Serena agonizes over telling him the truth, knowing he would probably reject both the money and her.
While reading, I never went, “Oh man, it’s gonna be so bad when Tom finds out!” I didn’t feel any real tension. Serena visits Tom, they have sex, they get drunk, they have more sex, she feels guilty about not telling him, she goes home. Repeat ad nauseum. And maybe I am a horrible person, but I thought the sense of underhandedness was blown way out of proportion. Serena never lied about her feelings for Tom. She doesn’t try to influence what he writes. She doesn’t try to censor him. She just offered him money that he was under no obligation to accept.
I also had a problem with the way Serena is treated by male characters, and even the author himself. She has terrible taste in men. They are unavailable (gay, engaged, married) or not very nice (manipulative, vindictive, self-absorbed). Sometimes both. And while I liked Serena’s voice – she is wonderfully dry – everything that happens to her happens because (1) she is pretty and (2) she likes to read. (Why do male authors have this idea that a girl is remarkable if she is pretty and likes to read? Bonus points if she likes to have sex.) And the ending is just this true Ian McEwan plot twist™ that made me want to chuck the book out the goddamn window.
I am still angry. I guess I’ll go read The Children Act now.